CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As the Carolina Panthers danced their way through the locker room following a 3-0 start to the season, team captain Brentson Buckner quickly cautioned them to settle down.
Four months later, with the team one victory away from a trip to the Super Bowl, the veteran defensive tackle still is pulling in the reins whenever his teammates get ahead of themselves.
When the Panthers need a leader to step forward, Buckner is always front and center.
"He's a guy who is vocal in his leadership and has been around successful organizations," safety Mike Minter said. "So he knows what it takes to be at this level, and guys really listen to him, and listen to his experiences, because he knows what he is talking about, and most of us have never been on this stage before."
Buckner is not shy about sharing the wisdom he gained playing in two AFC title games and one Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He recalls the 1994 season, when Pittsburgh's players were so cocky they spent team meetings dreaming of endorsement deals, writing lyrics to Super Bowl songs, even dozing off until the ring of a beeper or cell phone jolted them to attention.
What really got their attention was losing to San Diego in the AFC championship, ending their season one game short of the Super Bowl.
As the Panthers prepare to play the Philadelphia Eagles in Sunday's NFC championship, Buckner does not want the same thing happening.
"One thing I try to do is explain: 'Hey man, there is no tomorrow,'" Buckner said. "So you go out there and play as hard as you can go, and if you can't go, get somebody else in there who can. Give yourself the ultimate chance for success and don't slight yourself.
"You don't want to be sitting back saying: 'I wish I had done this. I wish I had watched more film.' That's what I am trying to show."
Buckner has been a steady influence through Carolina's rebuilding process.
A 10-year veteran, Buckner is the oldest player (32) on a young defensive line regarded as one of the best in the NFL. He's tutored All-Pro tackle Kris Jenkins, helped develop ends Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers and been an invaluable resource for the coaching staff.
"We are young in the defensive line, very talented, but young," coach John Fox said. "Brentson communicates a lot of things to those guys, both on and off the field, during games and before games."
It took time for Buckner to perfect his role, and he admits his push to be a leader caused him to be viewed as disruptive and cocky early in his career.
But he refused to change his approach. It is paying off now with an extremely young playoff team.
Before this season, only six Carolina starters had started a postseason game.
"I always think that a leader says things that other people aren't comfortable saying to the coach," he said. "You might take the heat for it, but as a leader, you should be able to do that.
"You have to be the voice of your people. That's the way I was raised to be."
Buckner is also known for his vast knowledge of the game and its historical background. Although he hopes to play five more years, he wants his final season to be a transition into the coaching ranks.
Fox cites Buckner's passion for the game and attention to technical details as qualities that make him a perfect candidate to roam the sidelines when his playing career is over.
Buckner, who proudly boasts of studying game film from 30 and 40 years ago, views his eventual move to coaching as a duty.
"I have a lot of knowledge that I have acquired over the years from great players," he said. "I would think I was slighting the game if in some way or form, I can't spread that on."